James Cameron becomes first solo explorer to reach the deepest point on Earth

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the safety system on James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger submarine. Safety straps were designed to release the vehicle’s ballast after about two days, not the pilot sphere after four days. This version has been corrected.

March 25, 2012

The director of “The Abyss” has reached the abyss.

Filmmaker and ocean enthusiast James Cameron became the first solo explorer to reach the deepest point of the ocean — almost seven miles down — when his custom-built one-man submarine touched down in the western Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench
at 7:52 a.m. local time Monday (5:52 p.m. Eastern time Sunday), according to a statement from the National Geographic Society, which is sponsoring the filmmaking and scientific expedition.

The Academy Award winner radioed “All systems okay” after hitting bottom at a depth of 35,756 feet, according to the statement.

Via an intermittent communications link to the mother ship, Mermaid Sapphire, Cameron tweeted, “Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt. Hitting bottom never felt so good. Can’t wait to share what I’m seeing w/ you.”

He surfaced about four hours later some 300 miles southwest of Guam after a rocket-like ride back from the depths.

Seven years in the making, the descent by one of the most successful Hollywood directors of all time (“Aliens,” “The Terminator,” “Titanic,” “Avatar”) was delayed by nearly a day because of choppy seas. But about 5 a.m. local time Monday, the waves calmed enough for the crew to splash the vehicle. Cameron began the dive by saying, “Release, release, release.”

The trip is the first attempt by humans to reach the Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, since two Navy lieutenants touched bottom in January 1960. On that trip, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard spent just 20 minutes on the bottom inside the bathyscaphe Trieste, the only humans before Cameron to visit the spot. The sub kicked up so much silt that the pair saw virtually nothing outside their porthole.

Cameron’s dive was expected to last about eight hours. According to plan, the innovative “vertical torpedo” — a lime-green submersible called Deepsea Challenger that Cameron helped design — was to plummet nearly 36,000 feet in just over 90 minutes, the swiftest deep dive with a human pilot. At the end of the dive, Cameron was to release 1,100 pounds of metal ballast, sending the vehicle shooting to the surface.

High-tech “syntactic foam” that forms the core of the vehicle was designed to be compressed by the immense pressures, while a metal sphere less than four feet across kept Cameron safe. The sphere is pressurized, so he was not at risk for decompression sickness.

An unmanned test dive Friday proved the sub worthy of surviving the crushing pressures of nearly eight tons per square inch — like an elephant standing on your toe.

Redundant safety systems were designed to release the vehicle’s ballast and send it toward the surface if problems arose. There was enough oxygen on board for 56 hours. And if the sub got stuck in bottom muck, ocean saltwater would eat through straps holding the sphere inside the vertical torpedo, releasing the ballast in about two days.

Four high-definition cameras recorded the trip for a television special and a 3-D theatrical film, with an eight-foot-tall bank of
high-intensity lights illuminating the depths of the trench, which lies far beyond the reach of sunlight. The Mariana Trench is a gash formed where one of the Earth’s huge tectonic plates, the Pacific plate, plunges under another, the Mariana plate.

Besides filming the journey, Cameron aimed to collect rocks, soil and any deep-sea creatures he encountered, using hydraulic arms attached to the sub. Biologists and geologists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and NASA will scrutinize the samples for exotic microbes and clues to how the slippage of the two giant tectonic plates can cause earthquakes and tsunamis.

Cameron is a longtime ocean explorer. Besides his films, he produced a documentary in 2003 about the wreck of the Titanic, “Ghosts of the Abyss,” and in 2005 released “Aliens of the Deep.” This was his 73rd trip into the ocean in a submersible, including 33 dives to the Titanic.

In a 2010 TED talk, Cameron explained his early love for science fiction and tales of exploration. “The Jacques Cousteau shows actually got me very excited about the fact that there’s an alien world here on Earth,” he said. “I might not go to an alien world on a spaceship someday — that seemed pretty unlikely. But [the ocean] was a world I could really go to right here on Earth that was as rich and exotic as anything I had imagined from reading these books.”

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